By Debjit Roy. What does the UW-Madison Writing Center have to offer a doctoral student in engineering? Actually, quite a bit!
I am Debjit Roy, a 5th year doctoral student in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UW-Madison and a research assistant at the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing. My advisor is Prof. Ananth Krishnamurthy, and my area of research is design and analysis of warehouse systems using autonomous vehicles. Let me explain. A distribution center (DC) of retail stores such as Walmart or COSTCO receives pallet loads from various suppliers and stores them in high-density storage racks. Today, the primary goal of a DC is to improve responsiveness in fulfilling customer orders, while at the same time improving efficiency and productivity in its operations. My research aims to design efficient warehouse systems using a relatively new autonomous vehicle technology. (See the figure below for an illustration of an autonomous vehicle.)
A research work is only half done until it is clearly written. I am from India where the official language of communication is English. With a decade of writing experience in industry and academia, I had developed a clear and logical structure in my writing. Until a year back, I always considered good writing as an art that improves with time and practice. However, my thought process about writing changed after receiving feedback from a professor on a contest paper. He said that “they [the evaluation panel] found positive features in how I had outlined the paper but they found some problems in writing style.” Accounting for an explicit writing style was never in my writing agenda! After carefully going through the comments, I realized that writing is composed of two elements: content and style. Writing style is not merely an art but has scientific principles or guiding rules that one can follow through.
So in Spring 2009, eager to learn more about principles of style, I attended a four-week workshop at the UW-Madison Writing Center “improving style.” I then scheduled several consultations with a writing center tutor to help me improve my writing style. Through the summer 2009, I worked on several writing style exercises followed by independent assignments in the fall. I realized that fundamental style principles can significantly improve a piece of writing. I learned that writing principles such as creating tight grammatical cores in sentences, using short introductory phrases, maintaining coherence (a paragraph with a central idea), and cohesiveness (glue between sentences and paragraphs) are very useful in improving style. The Writing Center staff helped to identify style-related patterns in my writing, which I would have found difficult to identify by myself. I always wondered how my writing style issues were so consistent:-). Writing Center tutors not only help me with style, but they also provide an outsider’s perspective on the paper and also tell me when my draft is hard to read. This kind of feedback really helps me improve my writing.
Did my writing change? Yes, it did! In Spring 2010, I participated in the Wunsch writing contest in the College of Engineering, a college-wide writing contest on topics in material handling. I was awarded the first prize for the paper titled “Magic Shelves: Boosting E-retail Sales by Reducing Order Picking Inefficiencies.” The panel liked the idea, flow, and style.
Writing style matters!